Throughout my career, and especially as a designer at IDEO, I’ve been a passionate believer of the value of placing people first, of designing from an end–user perspective. I’ve seen first hand the potential for how Human Centered Design (HCD) can transform careers, organisations,  industries and people’s lives. However, lately an idea has started to gnaw at me. Freshly back from the Skoll World Forum and hearing so much about social entrepreneurship, where I met and heard from some of the world’s most progressive thinkers and doers. These people are transforming the lives of humans everywhere – tackling prescient issues including poverty, inequality, corruption, and genocide. At Skoll and other similar events, the needs of people become apparently obvious. The delegates and speakers alike are passionate and knowledgeable about the progress of man (or lack thereof) in creating a more equal world. Perhaps it was the abundance of rhetoric about human needs that made me ask the question ‘But what about the rights of nature, other creatures, or of the planet itself?’

HCD has been a breakthrough for our industry – it’s repositioned design as a tool to help transform product development by ensuring customer’s needs are met and also by helping to uncover people’s latent needs (those not surfaced by traditional focus groups for instance). We are taught to think about the world in three lenses as designers: desirability – what people want, feasibility – the capabilities of a firm, and viability – its financial health. We are taught that we should start from the perspective of people’s needs first: desirability. This way of thinking, however, is selfish. It focuses on the needs of humans, but in doing so, ignores the needs of the rest of the 8.7M species that share planet Earth. What would be desirable, feasible, or viable if we took the perspective of planet Earth and ran it through the same venn diagram?

Astronomy fell into a similar trap many years ago – we believed we were the centre of the universe and that everything revolved around us, and we held on to this belief for almost two millennia. Although others made the same radical suggestion (Aristarchus of Samos in 250BCE), it wasn’t until the 15th century that the astronomer Georg Peurbach and his student Johannes Regiomontanus started to question the accuracy of Aristotlean and Ptolemic physics. These theories were further built upon by Copernicus who was the first to create a model which placed the sun in the centre of the universe. But it took Galileo’s observations of the heavenly bodies in 1610 to spot that Jupiter had moons that rotated around it, and therefore, disobeyed the rules of Aristotelean astronomy – proof finally. So radical was his idea that he was locked up and threatened with excommunication. But Galileo’s idea took hold of course, and we no longer consider ourselves the centre of the universe. Imagine how much more progress we might have made as a species if we had listened to Aristarchus 2000 years earlier? Following this dogma caused lots of problems in the development of science: people believed that the physics of the heavens were different to those on Earth; scientific laws were rationalised based on this; Earth was not even recognised as a Planet until Copernicus’ time.

This moment in history was pivotal: it shook up religions, scientific thought, and philosophy. The idea that we were not the centre of the known existence meant placing something far more important as the centre of our focus and that was a desire for fundamental truths in the measurable data and proof of science.

We are at a similarly epochraphal moment in our evolution: although we don’t believe earth is the centre of the universe, we still behave as if humans are the most important species alive today.

The Era of Man

We live, as geologists have stated, in the era of the Anthopocene – man has altered the Earth so dramatically that we have defined it by our actions. Just 10,000 years ago, humans and their livestock took up just 1% of the vertebrate biomass on Earth. Guess what that percentage is today? A staggering 98% of the earth’s total vertebrate biomass. OK, most of that is cattle, but still, within a nanosecond in Earth’s history we have transformed our home. With this new era we need a new approach to design that takes into consideration what is important for the natural systems we depend upon and take for granted. Perhaps we should call it Holistic Design: designing with a frame that includes the natural and human systems in combination to ensure we consider the bigger picture.


Of course we want a human-centered world, we’re a selfish species after all, but we have to find ways to evaluate what is collectively good for us. The problem is we’re not that great at agreeing collectively on what to do next, and even when we do we’re terrible at sticking to our collective word. Just take the Kyoto agreement, or the Millennium Development Goals for instance. So far our best attempts to create mass adherence reside in millennia old institutions: religion. Seriously: nothing else comes close in terms of getting us to en-masse comply (or not) to a set of rules which keep us in check.

The problem and the opportunity of being human-centred

The challenge that we face is that we will only make changes when we perceive a real threat to our way of life, our existence. Politicians generally only propose changes when they see a threat to the popular opinion of their governance and individuals only make changes when it really affects their pay check or reputation.

What does this mean for Design?

Design is a very insecure discipline – it’s undergone many transformations over the last 200 years from its roots in John Ruskin’s world of craft, to the industrial revolution, the Bauhaus, to its mass diversification into multiple separate ‘schools’: fashion, automotive, product, service, brand, even business. I believe it’s time for design to take the next step and lead the way to Holistc Design. That means finding an approach that, like Design Thinking has done, transcends discipline, encourages collaboration across those disciplines, considers the whole system rather than just its parts, and takes a discovery driven approach to creating new solutions.

What can we do about it?

Being a designer myself, I’m optimistic that we can reverse our impact and use our collective intelligence to improve things for the better. Here’s a few ideas for how we might make an impact, both individually and as a species:

  1. Be curious and question the dogma 

    Find out about the issues that we face. A great place to start is by looking at the big picture – the site has a fascinating map of some of the world’s most at threat locations or check out the Long Now Foundation’s collection of TED Extinction videos. But even more important perhaps is to find out how the issues affect you locally – how is the ecology changing, the land-use, bio-diversity? Where does your waste go? Start asking questions and you’ll find more questions appear rapidly.

  2. Learn about the steps we can take as individuals

    Learning about the issues we face can be overwhelming, but the good news is if we all become more aware, we’re taking a step in the right direction. Try learning about bottled water. 

  3. Spread the word: 

    Peer pressure can be an incredible force of change. Ask your friends and colleagues these questions. Share what you learn and look for interest groups. Here’s a great one: The Restart Project organises communities of self-repair around London through Restart Parties, where volunteers help others in trying to fix their electronic products. Or find one locally – here’s a great list.

  4. Change behaviour:

    Start with small changes and see how you can make a difference. Compete with friends to see who can reduce their carbon footprint, or learn how to reduce your business’ footprint, this service provides a toolkit to help you do that.

  5. Lobby governments and companies to make changes: 

    People can change laws. We allow the status quo to be by not resisting it. Non-violent resistance enabled India’s independence. One of the most inspiring things I read lately was about embedding the rights of nature in our legal code.

  6. Create new solutions that reverse human impact.

    Businesses are one of the most effective mechanisms for creating change: there are two clear ways of doing that: serving people’s needs in more sustainable ways, for example cradle to cradle movement, the ‘circular economy’ movement such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s work, platforms such as Sustainia or by directly improving a core planetary issue that creates value as a by-product, e.g. the X-Prize competitions, Ecotourism:

These are just a few thought starters towards thinking about a new approach to design. How do you approach problem solving? Does your approach always take a human-centric approach or does it embrace a more systemic view? How do the needs of the planet fit into the way you do business or just your everyday life? I’d love to hear from you.